Eighty-five years ago the National Gardens Scheme was created and blighted gardens in the UK forever. And in this anniversary year we will be bored silly by the praises sung of it.
Starting as a scheme to let everyone, even the hoi polloi, into posh gardens for a donation to charity, it now dominates the garden world, tainting all it touches. Somehow the belief has grown that the gardens under the scheme are great, quality gardens. The reality of their predominant mediocrity can never be confronted because, my dear, it’s all for good causes. Good gardens, awful gardens, nonexistent gardens such as Antony Woodward’s rather vacant plot on an inaccessible Welsh hillside — all may come to the party and be bathed in a rosy glow of goodwill and piety.
The charity and afternoon tea aspect of the scheme has lent an aura of middle-aged mindlessness to the creation and maintenance of gardens. There are groundbreaking creative intelligences at work in the garden world, which we sometimes glimpse: for example, at Chelsea. But they operate in a context where their achievement is transformed into a hobby. Because gardens open for charity, they become, in popular fantasy, charitable exercises in their own right, beyond examination or the luxury of being taken seriously.
The purpose of visiting a garden becomes harmless pleasure and tea, a chance for a gossip with friends while deploring the greenfly on the roses on thorny sticks that are as common as the strangely fashionable lemon drizzle cake. It is a chance to admire the less than admirable and deplore the perfectly acceptable. Convention rules. There will be no breath of complaint about rotten design poorly executed, but a so-called ‘weed’ can bring the County Organiser down upon a garden opener like a ton of manure. Tidiness is all.
It is a boring cliché to declare that a weed is a plant in the wrong place. This does not illuminate for us what a weed really is and what might be wrong with it. There is a kind of racial discrimination towards plants, so that without sensible discussion or real judgment, plants designated weedy will be condemned on sight. What it was to be gay 50 years ago is what it is to be ground elder today.
A slight confusion reigns, it is true, where ‘meadows’ crop up. The word ‘meadow’ is transforming itself and may apply as often to an imitation of a cropless arable field, or to a patch of bare soil filled with ‘wildflowers’ instead of bedding plants, as to that permanent pasture which used to nourish our cows and sheep. A version of a meadow (or possibly a meadow renamed a prairie) will shortly be appearing in a garden near you. In such a situation, the distinction between a weed and a wildflower becomes too confusing to think about and the issue is buried in the (now useless — many versions of meadow like low fertility) compost heap.
Gardens exist, it seems, simply as inspiration for other gardens. Which is no doubt why we see the same plants and the same hackneyed design everywhere. It is as if the only reason we would read a novel is to take examples from it of what words we could use in our own novel, and perhaps what scenes we could incorporate, undisguised, into our own plot.
Because gardens have become a charitable exercise, above all criticism and indeed, critique, it becomes impossible to acknowledge or discuss the merits of the best. When all get A-stars, it is impossible to distinguish excellence. In books, theatre, dance or art there is discussion and debate about quality: what it is, where it is and who is offering it. The best the garden world can offer is fashion.
Every year one garden will become the flavour of the year. It will feature in all magazines and newspapers, praised and illustrated by flattering, highly tweaked photographs. The delighted owners will believe that their place in posterity is assured, their visitor numbers guaranteed for ever and their investment in that tea room well made, only to discover that that the caravan moves on, gradually leaving them behind. Fashion is ephemeral and is hardly the same thing as worth.
No garden visitor will be confronted by anything demanding, except the range of cakes. It is in this context of reassuring banality that the garden media wet itself some years ago when Christopher Lloyd got rid of his antiquated rose garden. Or when an overrated garden at Hadspen, supposedly full of subtle colour themes, got bulldozed. I am left wondering if we might have had vibrant and adventurous gardens, matching the other transformations in our art forms in the past 85 years, if it had not been for the deadly, draining yellow shadow which the NGS umbrella has cast over our gardens. We would certainly have eaten less cake.